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Your Brain Under Pressure: Dissociation Disorder

Anna’s parents had fought for the majority of her childhood. What used to be powerful words and strings of curses that she couldn’t define turned into physical altercations outside her bedroom door by the time she turned nine.

While her father never turned his fists on her directly, she was a witness to not only the bruises and cuts on her mother’s body but the act itself. Each time their voices escalated in the hallway, Anna escaped to her bedroom and pressed her back against the door, trying her hardest to keep the anger away from her happy place.

The panic, confusion, and fear in her mind were triggered so often that they began to activate in other areas of her life when not necessary – when another player bumped her shoulder during her soccer game, she was hit with a panic attack so strong she had to be walked off the field, crying.

As Anna grew up and moved from her parents, she found that her memory of her childhood traumas was hardly recognizable, and by twenty years old she couldn’t remember it at all. However, at times she had random memory loss about other things and often felt like she was outside of her body or in a dream-like state. It wasn’t until attending therapy for depression that she was diagnosed with disassociation disorder.

Disassociation disorder shows just how powerful the human mind can be at trying to keep us safe. It is the mind’s way of taking us out of a traumatic experience that we can’t get away from physically. When a person is put into a difficult situation that they can’t escape from, their mind escapes instead and can cause symptoms such as an “out of body” experience, when the individual is watching themselves as a bystander, amnesia, and personality disorders. Disassociation could be the result of any traumatic incident at any age but is most common in child abuse victims or war veterans.

The Personalities of Disassociation Disorder

Disassociation disorder is not a cookie-cutter diagnosis, but a headline for four defined disorders.

Dissociative amnesiaDifferent from simple amnesia, which usually results from a physical injury to the head, dissociative amnesia occurs when an individual cannot recall personal information usually associated with a traumatic event. These memories aren’t gone but buried and hidden in the individual’s mind. There are a number of types of dissociative amnesia, including;

     Generalized amnesia: This is the most common when picturing amnesia, and is when the individual forgets his/her entire life and identity.

     Localized amnesia: A time period, usually around the time of the trauma, is completely forgotten in the individual’s mind. A chunk of time is missing from their memory.

Selective amnesia: The individual may remember parts of a traumatic incident, but not the entire thing. An abused child could remember going to his/her uncle’s house for the weekend and all the details that involve, except for the trauma itself.

When Naomi Lewis, author of “Forgotten Girl,” was thirty-two years old, she woke up to find 17 years of her life missing due to dissociative amnesia. She thought she was still 15 years old. She recalls,

“I was fifteen years of age again, trapped in a thirty two-year-old body. The last memory I had was of me falling asleep in the bunk bed I shared with my younger sister Simone, thinking about my French GCSE and the next thing I woke up in a room I didn’t recognise, terrified… I didn’t know it at the time but I had something called Dissociative Amnesia, which is a rare form of amnesia brought on by severe stress…”

Due to a history of drugs and abuse, Lewis’s mind time stamped her age of trauma and catapulted her back in at a seemingly random time.

Depersonalization disorderAn individual with depersonalization disorder will have reoccurring episodes of derealization, or feeling outside of one’s body. He/she may also feel his/her physical surroundings are changing shape or size, that other humans aren’t real, or a complete sense of detachment from his/her own life.

After my first major anxiety attack in high school, I experienced an episode of derealisation that I found impossible to describe. While driving to my high school’s homecoming football game, I suddenly disconnected from my body and was watching myself in the car. The road ahead of me started growing in size, and I couldn’t feel my hands touching the steering wheel. After pulling over in a panic, I tried to ground myself back into my body and come to terms with what was happening. It wasn’t for another year and dozens of episodes that I heard of disassociation disorder and found the symptoms matched with my experience.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): Probably one of the most well-known and popularized of the illnesses, DID is when previous trauma causes the brain to separate into individual “personalities,” also known as alters. Alters can differ in name, gender, age, and ethnicity in comparison to the person the alter resides in. When trauma to an individual is severe and dissociation takes place, it forms an entirely new personality to deal with that trauma so that the original personality doesn’t have to remember or deal with it directly. Many times, the alters don’t know the other ones exist.

In the Netflix documentary, “The Woman with 7 Personalities”, Helen, a woman diagnosed with DID, shows life with seven distinct alters that range in age and gender. While “Helen” still exists, her other alters will take charge of her life at random and unpredictable times, and Helen will have no recollection of the chunks of time spent in the other personalities. Due to extensive abuse as a child, two of Helen’s personalities practice self-harm, alcoholism, and drug abuse to cope. The other of Helen’s more child-like personalities exist to let her escape to various ages of her childhood when she felt safer.

When the human brain is put under enormous pressure and stress, it reacts in certain ways that it believes will keep us safe. Dissociation disorder is a way of doing just that – altering our memory and ways of perception to block trauma but leaving behind a series of complications best left to a professional.

Kyriazis, Stefan. “’I Woke up and Thought I Was FIFTEEN Again’ One Woman’s Shocking True Story of Amnesia.” Express.co.uk, Express.co.uk, 23 May 2015, www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/579525/naomi-lewis-amnesia-thought-she-was-16.

Tracy, Natasha. “Types of Dissociative Disorders.” HealthyPlace, HealthyPlace, Sept. 2016, www.healthyplace.com/abuse/dissociative-identity-disorder/dissociative-disorders-types-list/.

Welwyn, Ruth, director. The Woman with 7 Personalities. 2004.

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Mallory Lamparter, B.S. Psychology
Mallory Lamparter, B.S. Psychology

Mallory Lamparter is pursuing a B.S. in psychology as well as a minor in public health. She hopes to specialize in sports psychology in graduate school. When she's not trying to figure out how our minds work, she's either playing volleyball for the University of Arizona club team or hiking with her puppy.

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